Their telephones have been quiet for nearly six months, and their home postal deliveries no longer look like military mail calls. They travel to classes unimpeded by well-wishers, and none of their fellow students wear shirts with their pictures on the fronts. For the last six months they have not had to dodge mini-cams lying in ambush for them. In short, they have enjoyed a wonderful anonymity, a blast of pure oxygen after high school careers choked by fame and expectation. They breathe deeply.
There, wasn't that refreshing? Six months of normal life. Now it's over. California's Jason Kidd, a 6'4" point guard who was just about everybody's national schoolboy player of the year last season, was unveiled earlier this month at Night Court, Berkeley's traditional season-opening midnight practice. Ordinarily this scrimmage attracts scattered insomniacs, but this year it was attended by 5,000 fans. Later that afternoon on the other side of the country, in Washington, D.C., the wraps were taken off 6'10" Othella Harrington, another in Georgetown's series of exotically named big men, all of whom are expected eventually to prosper in the NBA. So the two most highly prized recruits in the country have returned to the toxic haze of celebrity. The phones are ringing again.
This happens every fall, of course, but few observers can remember such a double dose of hysteria—the big guy on the East Coast and the little guy out West. It's almost as if the college basketball world decided it needed to pick more than one freshman phenom this year. It picked two and assigned them to opposite coasts. Basketball must have figured, It's a big country.
Kidd has garnered the most accolades of any player in the country, yet he doesn't shoot with distinction. Kidd has captured the sport's attention with the more subtle skill of passing. Yes, Magic Johnson made a few magazine covers with his no-look passes, but not many high school players have excited fans with this relatively arcane specialty as much as Kidd has.
"He's in a class with the elite," says San Jose State coach Stan Morrison, who admits he was transfixed while watching more than a few of Kidd's games at little St. Joseph Notre Dame High in Alameda, Calif. "As a passer, he's right up there with Magic, with Cousy. The only thing is, he's a better athlete. He's got this explosive first step. Really, he's a fullback with a basketball. As a passer, he makes everybody so much better."
Cal coach Lou Campanelli, who somehow won the recruiting war for Kidd when it appeared that the coveted guard was headed for either Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas or Ohio State, thinks Kidd's skills are so special that even the casual fan should be able to recognize them. "He does things on the fast break that bring you right out of your scat." says Campanelli.
Kidd led St. Joseph, a school of 600 students, to the last two state titles, against California's largest schools. In the process he attracted a following that, described properly, risks ridicule. Cal assistant Jell Wulbrun wants to say this about as much as he wants to admit he was abducted by aliens. "But the truth is," says Wulbrun, "except for Joe Montana, Jason has been the biggest name in the Bay Area the last two years."
Is that possible? Never mind all those Jason Kidd T-shirts St. Joseph sold at $10 apiece to benefit its athletic program. The Bay Area demand to see Kidd play was so great last season that five of his games were moved to the Oakland Coliseum. At Cal, this season's team is being marketed more for Kidd's arrival than for last season's 10-18 record (shrewd move), and the school figures to reap an attendance bonanza. So far the Golden Bears have shifted five of their home games from 6,578-seat Harmon Arena on campus to the Oakland Coliseum, which holds 15,000. Cal's opener, with Sacramento State, a 4-24 team in 1991-92, has been rescheduled for the Coliseum. The day Kidd announced that he would attend Berkeley, the university's ticket office got 500 phone calls.
This is all for a Kidd who can thread the needle. He can do more, of course. For all the talk about his poor jump shot—"He's a better scorer than shooter, put it that way," says Campanelli—he still finished his career at St. Joseph with 2,661 points, making him the No. 6 schoolboy scorer in state history. "His forte is taking care of other people," says Morrison, "yet I saw him at a basketball camp in Las Vegas, and in the first game, he went 10 for 10. In the second, he went something like nine for 10. Coaches were jumping off the blackjack tables to see him. It was alarming. Jason would make the pass and, somehow, get under the basket to dunk the rebound. Larry Bird doesn't do that."
Kidd's defensive play is weak overall but sporadically brilliant. "It must be instincts," says Morrison, "because I never regarded him as being that strong fundamentally. But I've seen him, while guarding the entry pass, jump and catch the ball. Saw him do it twice. He's very disruptive."